As posted on – Aug 03, 8:00 AM

This commentary was submitted by Susan Katzoff, president of the board of directors of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County Inc., on behalf of board members Laurence Bousquet, Sophie Dagenais, Peter Dunn, Anthony Gigliotti, Brittany Hannah, Palmer Harvey, Mitchell Katz, Michael Klein, Brian LaClair, Emilee Lawson Hatch, George Lowe, Mary Miner, Ranette Releford, Clifford Tsan, Jeffrey Unaitis, Ellen Weinstein, Amy Wiles, Christopher Wiles and James Williams. VLP provides free legal aid to those in need. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a perfect legal storm for our most vulnerable community members. Even before Covid-19, there was a legal aid crisis in New York state. Less than 40% of those in need had access to free legal assistance. Now, with tens of thousands of Central New Yorkers unemployed, the need has increased dramatically, but statewide funding shortfalls threaten to leave our most vulnerable neighbors in terrible jeopardy, right when they need help more than ever.

Examples of our neighbors in dire straits during the Covid-19 pandemic include:

  • A young mother died suddenly, leaving her 6-month-old in her boyfriend’s care but with no legal guardian. The child needed vaccinations, but nobody could legally bring him to the doctor and authorize the treatment.
  • A single mother fled a life-and-death domestic violence situation. She found stable housing but is being sued by a debt collector from New York City for over $1,000 from a store card that carried a $100 balance. Worse, her old landlord won’t let her out of the lease she shared with her abuser, even though New York law clearly states that survivors of domestic violence may terminate their leases with an Order of Protection.
  • An essential worker who is transgender faced sexual harassment by his supervisor because of his gender identity. Now, during the Covid-19 crisis, the supervisor threatened to fire the worker without cause. The worker is desperate to keep his job, especially given the discrimination that transgender people face when trying to find new employment.
  • Another essential worker was the victim of a violent crime but feared coming forward because she is an immigrant residing here without legal permission. Even worse, she was exposed to Covid-19 due to her employment and is now struggling both financially and with health issues.

For these and many other clients, affording a private attorney is impossible, and free legal services is the only path forward. The Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County Inc. team, comprising 10 staff and over 500 volunteer lawyers and law students, provides critical and urgent legal help to these and thousands of other members of our community. Our work has not stopped because of the pandemic. Instead, the need has increased dramatically. For instance, we expect an incredible surge of eviction cases in the coming months, putting thousands at risk of homelessness.

Without question, free legal aid is an essential service that our Central New York community desperately needs to survive and recover from Covid-19. The outcomes below demonstrate the value and impact of VLP’s free legal services:

  • For the child of the deceased mother, we filed an emergency action to get her boyfriend temporary guardianship for purposes of medical treatment.
  • For the survivor of domestic violence, we are fighting the debt lawsuit and assisting to get her off the old lease. This client said about VLP, “I feel blessed. I’ve been trying to get help for a long time and gone everywhere for help, and people have been brushing me off. It’s so good to know someone cares.”
  • For the transgender essential worker, we assisted the employee in bringing the matter to the employer’s HR department, resulting in the supervisor being disciplined and increased training for employees about gender identity issues.
  • For the essential worker who is an immigrant, we are helping the client to apply for non-immigrant status and bring the perpetrator of the crime to justice. If successful, the client will obtain lawful status, job security, health insurance and stability for her future.

Without New York state funding, VLP would not have been able to help any of these individuals. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 financial crisis, the state (facing an over $15 billion revenue shortfall) has stopped making payments under approved grants for work performed by VLP. Because 80% of our annual budget is from state funds, VLP is operating on borrowed time and loans. The situation is dire and, if not addressed, will result in a significant reduction in services to those most in need. In addition to withholding current payments, New York is discussing cuts of 20% or more to our future funding, putting at risk our ability to meet even the most basic needs of our community, not to mention the increased need resulting from the pandemic.

We need you. Please help to ensure that our state and federal leaders take immediate action to ensure that free legal aid, which is essential for equal justice under the law, is preserved and advanced, now more than ever before. Thank you for your advocacy.